More than 50 years after we were first told to stay sick, Ghoulardi fever is still infecting us.
Even if the people once summed up as “Ghoulardi’s kids” now have grown kids of their own, the influence of the late-night horror-movie host has stretched into another generation in TV, in music and in literature.
Some of that influence was evident in 1997, when Tom Feran and I wrote the book Ghoulardi: Inside Cleveland TV’s Wildest Ride. But the extension of Ghoulardi-ness to people not even born when he was hosting has become even more widespread with time.
Ghoulardi, for those of you tuning in late, was the bearded, beatnik-ish, outrageous and outspoken host of movies on WJW (Channel 8) from 1963 to 1966. He was played by Ernie Anderson, then known mainly as an announcer, commercial spokesman and sometime TV personality, including in collaboration with future comedy legend Tim Conway.
As Ghoulardi, he poked fun at the movies on the show and at other local TV stars, as well as bringing into the local mainstream such expressions as “Stay sick” and “Turn blue.” He also gave a home to some memorable comedy sketches, most famously the Peyton Place parody Parma Place.
After he left for Hollywood in the late ’60s, Anderson found a lucrative career as a voiceover artist, intoning promotional spots for ABC and in commercials until his death in 1997. That craft earned him plenty of attention, including a visit to David Letterman’s show. But in Northeast Ohio, he was always remembered as Ghoulardi.
His son, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, named his production company for Ghoulardi even though the younger Anderson did not come into the world until after Ernie had bid the character farewell. Still, Paul Thomas Anderson was impressed on a visit to Cleveland with his father that people would recognize Ernie and stop to chat with him on the street. “He was this huge thing,” Anderson said.
The acerbic wit and iconoclastic side of Ghoulardi came directly from Ernie — and possibly made its way into the younger Anderson’s films. Think of the extremes in Daniel Day-Lewis’s Oscar-winning performance in There Will Be Blood.
Or look at his three earliest films — Hard Eight, Boogie Nights and Magnolia — and note what Anderson told the Beacon Journal’s George Thomas in 2000: “I think all three movies … in roundabout ways reflected his [Ernie’s] life in small, intimate, personal ways that I wouldn’t want to reveal, but you can be sure that there’s a lot of my Dad in these movies.”
But there doesn’t need to be blood to connect Anderson to an admirer. When novelist Sheri Holman made a horror-movie host a character in her well-received 2011 novel Witches on the Road Tonight, she drew partly on her own memories of the Bowman Body, a host in Richmond, Va., where she grew up. But her research led her to a Cleveland connection.
“Ghoulardi was a huge influence on Witches on the Road Tonight,” Holman said by email. She watched clips of him on YouTube and read accounts of his life and work.
Of horror hosts generally, she said, “Ghoulardi was probably the most influential. He tapped into the transgressive spirit of the early sixties, drawing on the same kind of offbeat, unpredictable humor as Mad Magazine. Baby boom pre-teen boys worshipped him and he set the template for hosts in other venues.”
Closer to home, the Black Keys — Patrick Carney and Dan Auerbach — seized on the phrase Turn Blue for the title of a 2014 album and a track on it.
“We just liked the phrase, first off,” Auerbach told the BBC’s Mark Savage. “We liked the association with Ghoulardi, this kind of weird freak from Ohio from the early ’60s — that was a phrase he used to use. And then so much of the album was lyrically melancholy and introspective and personal, so it was very blue. I guess it just made sense.
“We also liked how we could translate Turn Blue into artwork for the cover.”
And, for a band firmly rooted in Akron, it was a connection to history not unlike their naming an earlier album Rubber Factory.
Nor is that the only generation-spanning musical link for Ghoulardi. The Cramps, co-founded by Akron’s own Lux Interior (Erick Lee Purkhiser), were steeped in pop culture. And Ghoulardi was a large part of it. But it did not end there.
“Although the band’s fan base remained cultish and on the fringes of mainstream recognition, contemporary trendsetters including the White Stripes cite the Cramps as a definitive influence,” said one piece after Lux’s death in 2009. So although the White Stripes and Black Keys have done some public feuding, they are linked through Ghoulardi.
The immediate TV connections to Ghoulardi reach back a long way, to Big Chuck Schodowski, who worked with Ernie Anderson and then took on TV hosting himself, and whose work is still seen on WJW to this day. There are also followers such as the Ghoul and Son of Ghoul.
While those successors have plied their craft for decades, a much more recent Ghoulardi TV heir is The WeiRdNeSs Really Bad Movie, movie hosting and comedy sketches shown on some local cable systems, on YouTube, http://reallybadmovie.weebly.com and other platforms. (See the website for more details and video bits.) There’s a lighthearted ensemble of writers and performers, along with the occasional guest such as a pop-culture writer you’ve been reading.
The Ghoulardi connection is not direct but is lineal.
“I lived in Buffalo, N.Y., when Ghoulardi was on air here in Cleveland,” said WeiRdNeSs maestro David Binkley. “My influence definitely was Big Chuck. Whenever I’m working on a sketch and get stuck, I ask myself WWBCD? What would Big Chuck do here?”
Proving once again that Ghoulardi is a local cultural constant, Binkley will be shooting some WeiRdNeSs material at this year’s Big Chuck and Lil’ John GhoulardiFest, which is Friday through Sunday (Oct. 30-Nov. 1) in the La Villa Banquet and Conference Center at 11500 Brookpark Road in Cleveland. See http://theghoulardifest.com for more information.
As that convention, and the Black Keys, and others demonstrate, the show goes on.
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal, Ohio.com, Facebook, Twitter and the HeldenFiles Online blog. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.